SB-2 not for Hollis, Brookline

Why do some want the SB-2 form of town meeting as opposed to the traditional meeting?

The benefits are always touted as allowing more people to vote on the town warrant articles because voting is conducted on Election Day. This is definitely a benefit. But, what is it that people can vote on? There is no negotiation or change but only a yes or no vote on what is on the ballot.

If the deliberative session, held in early February when the weather is often worse than the March election was well attended, things might be different. But, history of the past 20 years has shown us that about 10 percent of the voters who traditionally attended the town meeting show up for the deliberative session. Why should they, some say, we get to vote on all the articles on Election Day. But what you get to vote on has been decided by the few who attended the deliberative session.

One year, in Mont Vernon, a single voter showed up for deliberative session and decided on what the entire town was going to see on the ballot on Election Day. Is that representation?

We often worry about a special interest group coming to the town meeting to sway an issue. SB-2 makes it so much easier for that to happen. A New Hampshire Municipal Association spokesperson once said, "There is more legislation filed every year to change or alter parts of Senate Bill 2 than almost any statute that we would follow over at the State House."

Deliberative sessions in Candia underscored what some believe to be a big flaw in the SB-2 form of government. Both sessions drew few voters. At one, a proposal to pay for the closure of the town’s incinerator site was amended from $100,000 to $1. At a school district deliberative session, a petition warrant to reduce kindergarten from a full-day session to a half-day session was amended to include language indicating that the warrant was "advisory" and "non-binding." Was that the intent of the petitioners? Would this have happened at a well-attended traditional town meeting? But, those examples are not the items that continue to plague the SB-2 form of town meetings. It is the budget that is the biggest problem. The budget is set at the deliberative session with a handful of people in attendance. A default budget is then set in case the regular budget does not pass on Election Day. The default budget is often greater than the rejected budget.

On Election Day, you cannot ask questions, no explanations are offered, no opportunity to make changes are available. Vote yes or no, that’s it. Vote no and you get the default which mirrors last year’s budget.

As chairman of the House Municipal & County Government Committee at the New Hampshire Legislature, I see firsthand the attempts to remedy the issues with SB-2. There are currently (2017) four bills in the Legislature dealing with SB-2 budgets. Over the past 20 years the Legislature has had close to 50 bills to "fix" SB-2. This legislative biennium, one bill would have you vote on two budgets on the ballot – one regular and one default. If both fail, you hold a traditional town meeting the next week and establish a budget. If an article to buy a fire truck was changed to not buy a fire truck, and the amendment failed, could you still buy that fire truck? The article to buy was never voted on.

If you are truly dissatisfied with the way your town and/or school district is governed and you feel the SB-2 version is the only option, you should look into a charter form of local government.

Here are recent examples of attendance at the deliberative session in towns where SB-2 was adopted:

Amherst had 8,840 registered voters and 167 attended the deliberative session (2 percent). Milford had 10,894 registered voters with 83 attending (1 percent). Hudson had 16,305 registered voters with 72 attending (hovering at slightly more than 0 percent).

While 65 New Hampshire communities had adopted SB-2 form of government, 34 of them attempted to repeal it after they found out how undemocratic it was. Sixty-six towns were faced with adopting SB2 where it failed as it has for the past two years in Hollis/Brookline.

If you want 1 percent of the district’s voters to tell you what you will vote on with no chance to express an opinion, SB-2 may be for you.

If you want to be a New Englander and participate in the New England representative deliberative Town Meeting form of government, vote NO on the SB-2 article on the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School District Warrant at the March 2017 elections. Better yet, show up to speak against this form of government for the Hollis-Brookline Cooperative School District at a pair of hearings; one beginning at 10 a.m. this Saturday, Feb. 25 at Brookline’s Captain Samuel Douglass Academy or at 6 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 27 at Hollis Brookline Middle School Library.

This has been brought up several times in Hollis and Brookline and turned down. How often do we need to say no?

Jim Belanger is the Hollis Town moderator and a state representative serving as chairman of the House Municipal & County Government Committee.